A small claims battle that sparked a big deal over smart meter opt-out fees scored a potential victory for a Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative customer, diagnosed with electromagnetic hypersensitivity, who was left in the dark for more than a year.
The 16-month standoff reached a tentative settlement in appellate court last month when PSREC General Manager Bob Marshall agreed to reconnect Josh Hart’s electricity, drop all past fees and provide self-read analog service at no charge.
With a final settlement on the horizon, Hart said, “No one should be paying extra fees above what is already an exorbitant price for electricity to have a safe analog meter on their home. Period.”
The utility terminated Hart’s electricity after he refused to pay an opt-out fee for use of an analog meter instead of a smart meter. The charges include a $141 initial fee and a $15 monthly recurring fee. Smart meters enable two-way communication between the meter and the utility for monitoring and billing.
Backed by his physician and medical records, Hart sued PSREC, maintaining that smart meters expose him to electromagnetic fields that trigger electromagnetic hypersensitivity symptoms including headaches, fatigue, muscle pain and more.
The dispute left Hart and his wife living without electricity in an all-electric home in Mohawk Valley. He said they could not use their refrigerator and had no hot running water. The couple depended on a wood stove for heat, cooking and heating water.
In previous proceedings, Plumas County Superior Court Judge Janet Hilde ruled that PSREC’s opt-out fees violate state discrimination laws stating public utilities cannot prejudice, disadvantage or require different rates or deposit amounts from a person because of a medical condition.
Hilde ordered the utility to cancel the opt-out fee and monthly charge for reading the analog meter. She also ordered utility officials to allow Hart to self-read the device.
The utility didn’t. It appealed.
“Obviously we disagree with Judge Hilde,” said Marshall.
As a key part of that appeal before Judge Ira Kaufman, PSREC cited a California Public Utilities Commission smart meter decision supporting residential opt-out fees.
Documents state the determination is based on the expense utilities would accrue in installing, maintaining and staff time to read the older analog equipment. It also concluded CPUC was unable to link smart meters to health risks and opt-out fees do not violate Americans with Disabilities Act or public utility codes.
“We don’t argue that someone has a medical condition,” said Marshall. “Not my worry, not my concern. We treat everyone the same, medical condition or no medical condition.”
However, CPUC Information Officer Andrew Kotch said Marshall’s take on who can use the commission’s regulations is misunderstood because the decision only applies to utilities it regulates. Those include Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric, Sierra Pacific Power and Pacific Power and Light. PSREC is a cooperative and not under the CPUC’s jurisdiction.
“We only regulate investor-owned utilities that have stockholders,” Kotch said. “I don’t understand why (PSREC) would base their actions on a commission that doesn’t regulate them.”
Marshall disagreed, stating that PSREC is regulated by the CPUC in some areas, so its determinations apply to his utility.
“PSREC is subject to the rules of the CPUC but not the rates,” he said. “Not everyone at the CPUC is aware of that, given how rarely we interact with them. We believe that we would be outside of the rules if we were to ignore this decision and discriminate in favor of someone with a medical condition.”
Nevertheless, Hart’s electricity was restored July 2 — prior to the signing of the final settlement. Both sides expect the agreement to be official soon.
“We turned the lights back on in good faith,” said Marshall.
As the director of Stop Smart Meters!, Hart said he hopes his case will bring awareness and action to the issue.
“Don’t just go along with a forced smart meter or unjust fees,” he said. “Take them to court.”